After reading that RIM had chosen not to hold its regular analyst event at the upcoming BlackBerry World conference, opting instead to wait until after the launch of BlackBerry 10, I reached out across the interwebs to understand the reasoning behind the decision. Of all the answers I got back, one response rang most true:
Because there is no point to the event. Analysts will be asking questions which simply cannot be answered at that point. No different than a startup trying to avoid talking about their new product before launch. Just that RIM has to do this on the world’s biggest stage.
This notion of a startup mentality was reinforced by RIM’s Q4 2012 financial earnings report and conference call yesterday, where RIM also announced it would discontinue forecasting quantitative financial guidance. While this was done for very practical reasons, the result is that RIM has effectively entered it’s own ‘stealth mode’, choosing to go dark until it has the right story to tell.
Messaging control isn’t the only way new CEO Thorsten Heins has RIM adopting a startup mentality to reboot and reclaim its lost mojo. Forget “Be Bold”, RIM’s new motto is now: focused, honest, hungry.
RIM is now focused
Along with RIM’s earnings report came some unexpected organizational bombshells, first and foremost that former co-CEO Jim Balsillie has resigned from the Board of Directors. Gone too are CTO, David Yach, and COO of Global Manufacturing and Supply Chain, Jim Rowen. Dan Dodge has been named chief software architect, and Heins will look to replace Rowen’s COO position (to be merged with Heins’ own old COO position) while he also searches for a new CMO. Take note that RIM’s other former co-CEO, Mike Lazaridis, did not also step down and make of that what you will, but the important point is that Heins is putting his own management team in place; no longer will there be two voices at the top of RIM.
Heins also commented that RIM will seek to reduce its focus on VAS, or Value Added Services. VAS is a broad industry term that can be taken a lot of different ways (e.g. BIS and BES are essentially VAS), but my understanding of the situation is that Heins was referring to the numerous partnered projects RIM undertakes to grow the BlackBerry offering and eke out revenue on the side: applications like BlackBerry Travel, Ticketmaster, eBay, BBM Music, etc. Essentially, RIM is saying that anything that doesn’t help launch BlackBerry 10 is a waste of time. I would expect this is only the beginning.
RIM is now honest
These decisions reflect RIM’s newfound willingness to acknowledge and address the reality on the ground. With a fresh break from the past comes the opportunity for fresh perspective, and Thorsten Heins did not mince words leading his first earnings call. Longtime RIM followers listening to the call last night likely had their mouths agape as Heins clearly and directly addressed the challenges RIM faces. RIM knows it needs an ecosystem, but also that it doesn’t have the time, resources, or capability to build that ecosystem by itself, so it will look to partner, specifically in regards to media services. Value Added Services that divert resources and directly compete against said ecosystem will be killed. Cheap Android devices are encroaching on RIM’s international growth, so the company will release low-end BlackBerry 7 handsets to remain competitive. All-touch BlackBerry 7 smartphones are not selling well, so the inventory is being written off. RIM is getting pounded in the US market, which is why a flawless launch of BlackBerry 10 is so important.
None of these challenges will instil investors with confidence in RIM, but that’s not the point. The market was already aware that RIM faces grave challenges; RIM has now told the market that they know it, too. The first step on the road to recovery is acceptance, not claims of leapfrogging the competition.
RIM is now hungry
As a company of thousands, with millions in the bank, RIM obviously does not have the entrepreneurial hunger of a young startup looking to change the world. However, it is feeling the hunger of a past giant fighting to stay alive. Regardless of motivation, the burn is the same.
Speak with any RIM employee over the past few weeks and you’ll notice the same thing: polite (Canadian!) acknowledgement of RIM’s current struggles, with an undertone of aggravation. Aggravation at the way RIM is perceived by the media (both fairly and unfairly). Aggravation that RIM is treated like the walking dead when it has 77 million subscribers. Aggravation that no one seems to believe RIM knows what a next-generation smartphone looks like, much less that it has the ability to make one.
So that polite Canadian good humour is tempered by a weighted pause that seems to say: just you wait. You’ll see. RIM employees want one more shot to prove everybody wrong. One more shot to prove that the most innovative technology company in Canadian history wasn’t a one-hit wonder. Importantly, this mindset is now shared by those running the company.
Startups need to be focused on their goals, honest about their positioning and capabilities, and hungry to make a dent in the universe if they hope to have a shot at success. I can’t claim to know if RIM’s shot is long passed – if its window of opportunity is closed – but I do know there is one more thing every startup needs: a killer product. The excuses are gone, the stage is set. It’s time for RIM to deliver.
Disclosure: I worked at RIM on the Social Media team from 2009-2011. It was fun.